We’ve all seen them. They often begin appearing around major holidays like Christmas and Easter and like most memes they have a tiny hint of truth, some outright falsehoods, and are mostly full of facepalms of ridiculous claims. I was recently asked about this particular meme:
At a quick glance the problems with the claims in the meme are myriad. No one thinks Jesus was a Christian. He is the Christ. By definition Jesus cannot be a follower of Jesus. And he is not only a King, but he is the King of kings. He really and truly died for the sins of the world. Regarding hell, here is what Jesus himself said:
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.Matthew 10:28 ESV
Since Jesus is God in human form, he is the one to fear. These claims for the so-called “Colonizer Jesus” are simply absurd. On the other side the claims for the historical Jesus are not nuanced enough. Yes, he liberates the oppressed and he is the friend of sinners and he critiques religious hypocrites and pursues true justice, but when these are listed in opposition to “Colonizer Jesus” they are intended to tell a different tale than they actually do. For example, Historical Jesus is a friend of sinners while Colonizer Jesus sends sinners to hell. Both are true. He is the holy and sovereign God who will one day judge the world and he is the merciful and gracious God who gladly forgives and welcomes all who will repent. The meme is attempting to put these two at odds when they are not at odds and it does so by leaving out such key details.
There is a real sense in which the Colonizer Jesus is the image portrayed by many Christian nationalists—those who act as if God’s primary work in this world is to prosper America through economic and military strength. This is why it includes things like Colonizer Jesus is “patriotic” and “endorses holy war”. This isn’t the true Jesus—but neither is the so-called “Historical Jesus”, for this Historical Jesus apparently was just an activist who lost his life rather than the Savior of the world who conquered death by rising from the dead and who will one day bring about true justice in the entire world when he comes again.
Rather than Colonizer Jesus or Historical Jesus, we worship the Lord Jesus Christ—the true Jesus. He comes to liberate the oppressed and end injustice, but he does so first by being oppressed and suffering injustice. He died in the place of his people, having been made to be sin though he himself knew no sin, in order that his people might become the righteousness of God. This he gladly endured that he might save them from their sins. He is coming again to finish what he started.
Now what about the first claim for each? Colonizer Jesus is white while Historical Jesus is a Middle Eastern brown-skinned man. The True Jesus is a Jewish man with light brown skin and dark hair. He does not have blue eyes and light-brown hair. So why is he so often painted as if he were white with blue eyes? The vast majority of those who live in this country are of European descent. If we were mostly, say, Asian folk, our popular imagination of Jesus wouldn’t be white, but Asian. The same would be true if we were mostly of African descent. Consider this following composite image.
Looking at this compilation of Jesus depicted in art, it isn’t hard to figure out either the ethnicity of the artist or the ethnicity of the dominant culture in which the artist lived. For example, the second one down and second from the left is Jesus in a 17th-century Ethiopian painting showing a very brown Jesus while the one directly above it is a very Chinese Jesus with some of his very Chinese disciples! (I happen to be quite fond of “Asian Jesus”!) The top left is an Egyptian painting of Jesus, showing him as a dark-skinned Coptic whereas the bottom left painting by El Greco, a 16th-century Greek artist, portrays Jesus with much lighter skin. According to El Greco’s self portrait, he had lighter skin similar to the tone he gave Jesus. The image in the second row, second from the right is a 6th-century Roman mosaic of him. Again, notice the darker skin.
The reason so much of our Western art shows a lighter-skinned Jesus is because most of Western art was created by and among lighter-skinned folk. To be sure there are those who insist—at least implicitly—on a white Jesus with blue eyes. There are those who want to remake God in their image so they proclaim a Jesus who matches the demographic of their ideal political candidate: a white, Christian, patriotic Jesus who wants to make our nation prosper both economically and militarily. This is not the Jesus we proclaim.
The Jesus we proclaim, the very True Jesus who was born to a virgin named Mary, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, who was crucified, died, and was buried, who descended to the dead, who rose again on the third day and ascended into heaven, who is seated at the right hand of the Father and is coming again to judge the living and the dead, this True Jesus cannot be tamed and made to serve our particular purposes and political ends. Jesus did not come to give our particular political party state or national victories. His work in this world is not being accomplished by military might or by economic power. He is building his church by drawing men and women from every tribe and language and people and nation. In the words of the apostle Paul, speaking of those diverse people whom God calls to salvation,
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.Ephesians 2:13–16 ESV
God’s eternal purpose in Christ is to make a diverse kingdom of peoples who are united not by ethnicity but by faith in him, not by shared political views but by faith in him, not by socio-economic status but by faith in him, not by cultural expression but by faith in him. What unites is our common confession: Jesus is Lord.
The truth is Jesus was a light-brown Jewish man. I, personally, gain no benefit whatsoever by thinking of Jesus in any particular skin tone, but then people who look like me are in the majority. Many who are not in the majority are greatly comforted by thinking of Jesus in African tones or Asian tones or South American tones. I cannot personally understand or experience that connection, yet I am glad others can and do. Jesus is the Lord of the nations and while his skin tone is that of a first-century Jewish man, the reality is we all worship him for who he is: the Lord of all the earth.
All this raises a final question: why did the Son of God put on human flesh and come as a Jewish man and not, say, as an Arab or a Roman or any other ethnic group? Before I explain why, the truth is that all those with faith in Jesus are adopted into God’s family. There are no native-born sons and daughters in the kingdom of God. Our rights and privileges as citizens of the kingdom of God are granted to us through God’s grace and mercy. This gets back to the question. Why is Jesus a Jewish man?
The answer is quite simple: God keeps his promises. He made a promise to Abraham that through Abraham God would bless all the families of the earth. This is why Christ’s church is found in every single nation on earth. It is not yet in every people group, but that is coming. From every tribe and language and people and nation Jesus is building his church. This promise to Abraham passed to his son Isaac, and the promise to Isaac passed to his son Jacob—also called Israel. God made this promise even more explicit to him:
And God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body.”Genesis 35:11 ESV
The kings he refers to include the King of kings, the one who would one day rule over all nations, the very one Paul says is the Offspring God promised Abraham. That King is none other than Jesus Christ, the direct descendant of Abraham who came through Israel’s own body, the one who fulfills all of God’s promises. Light skin or dark, yellow or brown, black or white, each one of us stands before a holy God who calls us to trust him and confess that he and he alone is Lord of all.
Because Jesus is Lord, we cannot reduce him to a meme. We cannot pick and choose which parts of who Jesus is that we like and simply discard the rest. We take him for who he is and for what he has done. We simply bow before the King of kings and confess with all other followers of Jesus: Jesus is Lord—our Lord.